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After years of wrangling about the U.S military’s future in Japan, officials in both countries have signed off on a critical plan that would open the door to the reduction of Marines on Okinawa and shift them to Guam and Hawaii as forces are realigned across the Pacific.
The April 5 agreement would transfer six major properties and other parcels, totaling about 2,500 acres in the southern part of Okinawa. They would be returned to local Okinawan control starting next year at the earliest, according to the Defense Department.
The properties include:
Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, by 2022 or later.
Army Kuwae Tank Farm No. 1, by 2022 or later.
Camp Zukeran, a part of Camp Foster, by 2024 or later.
The Makiminato Service area of Camp Kinser, by 2025 or later.
Camp Lester, also known as Camp Kuwae, by 2025 or later.
Naha Port, by 2028 or later.
“Now more than ever, it is essential that the United States maintain a geographically distributed and sustainable force throughout Asia that can provide for the protection of Japan and our other allies, and U.S. interests,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement announcing the plan.
The linchpin to the consolidation is the closure of MCAS Futenma. It was part of the 2006 “U.S.-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation” that outlined reducing the U.S. military footprint and presence in Japan over several years. The air station, which houses helicopter units and the first of two MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor squadrons that support III Marine Expeditionary Force, is surrounded by heavily developed areas, including Ginowan city. It long has been the target of protests and opposition by local residents, who often complain about noise and their safety.
The plan would move air operations to a new coastal airfield in northeastern Okinawa, near Camp Schwab/Hansen. Doing so will require landfill to build a pair of runways that would extend into the ocean, a prospect that has raised concerns among environmentalists. The government of Japan has agreed to pay $114.3 million toward the facility costs, Pentagon officials said.
“Our plan calls for the immediate return — upon the completion of certain necessary procedures — of certain facilities and areas on Okinawa,” Hagel said. “The United States will then return additional locations once replacement facilities are constructed, and when a sizeable contingent of U.S. Marine Corps forces relocate.”
The first group of parcels to be turned over will be Western Futenma Housing on Camp Foster, north access road and the Gate 5 area of Makiminato Service Area at Camp Kinser, and part of the Facilities and Engineering Compound at Camp Foster. Several smaller parcels now part of Camp Foster and the rest of Camp Kinser will be handed over once the transfer of Marines from Okinawa is completed.
The larger properties, however, including Futenma, will take longer, mostly because replacement facilities need to be constructed.
The new agreement mostly follows the April 2012 plan of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, but some land returns and unit relocations will require other reviews, including cultural surveys. The plan identifies separate U.S. and Japan responsibilities for returning each of the properties and sets a general timeline.
The countries will have to sort out the details of who will pay for moving units, closing installations and constructing new utilities and facilities, including the Futenma replacement. Under the original plan, relocating all the Marines to Guam would cost $8.6 billion, with the costs borne by both countries.
The force reduction that drives the “Roadmap” is tied to the U.S. military’s broader realignment of troops in Asia-Pacific, which includes moving about 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to Hawaii and Guam. The new rotations of Marines to Australia, slated to grow to 2,500 a year by 2016, include III MEF units based in Hawaii.